Thursday, 30 June 2016

A century on from the Battle of the Somme - Wull Grant and one Ayrshire man's story

It's been quite a while since I posted in my blog but this seems a very appropriate time to do so.

One hundred years ago tomorrow, the first day of July 1916, the upper reaches of the River Somme in northern France saw the start of the Battle of the Somme. Also known as the ‘Somme Offensive’, the armies of the French and British Empires fought from the 1st  of July for the next 141 days against the army of the German Empire. It was to be the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front and, with more than a million men wounded or killed, was one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

British artillery at the Battle of the Somme

There are not many examples of the voices of ordinary soldiers from that hellish event, considering how many soldiers were involved. In an article from Thursday 8th March 2007, the Guardian newspaper reported on the auction of the diary and photographs of Walter Hutchinson, a stretcher-bearer in the 10th Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment, who wrote the diary during the first three weeks of the battle. The article began with the following statement:

“For almost a century, poets and historians have struggled to describe the carnage of July 1 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. Personal tales are easily lost amid the colossal death toll of the first day of the battle of the Somme. Of the 120,000 British soldiers who scrambled out of the trenches to march into a wall of fire, almost 20,000 died.”

The article then goes on to describe the rare personal account from an ordinary soldier, as described by Hutchinson in his diary, and I recommend that you read the article here

Mention of personal stories from ordinary soldiers who fought in the trenches at the Somme resonate with me for reasons I will explain. Involvement in such horror must leave an indelible mark on a survivor. My own paternal Great Grandfather fought in World War One in a Scottish regiment at the hell-hole that was Gallipoli and, following a leg wound, was sent home and survived the First World War. My father said that his grandfather never talked about his war experience, and who can blame him? His injury maybe meant, though, that he missed being deployed to France and maybe to the Somme. The Battle of the Somme was, as stated above, one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The mental and physical effects on survivors must have been unimaginably horrible, severe and long-lasting – one British officer, Captain Leeham, talking about the first day of the battle, in 'Tommy Goes to War', said:

“The trench was a horrible sight. The dead were stretched out on one side, one on top of each other six feet high. I thought at the time I should never get the peculiar disgusting smell of the vapour of warm human blood heated by the sun out of my nostrils. I would rather have smelt gas a hundred times. I can never describe that faint sickening, horrible smell which several times nearly knocked me up altogether.”

I never met any survivors from the Somme myself but, in our family, my father talked often, during our childhood and beyond, of an old soldier friend of his who had been sent to the Somme, survived and returned home to Ayrshire in the west of Scotland, a man whom he had befriended, ironically enough, following his own return to Scotland after his own National Service in 1958.

Most of my immediate family hails from Ayrshire, and my father, sister and I were all born in Kilwinning. Before his period of National Service (in Centurion tank regiments in Germany as a gunner/ radio operator), Dad had worked on the Montgreenan estate (owned then by Lord Weir of Weir Pumps in Glasgow) near Kilwinning as an assistant gamekeeper, described as an under-keeper. By all accounts, he was great at the job, his boss, a lovely, calm, old gentleman of a gamekeeper called Donald Campbell, describing him as the best underkeeper he’d ever worked with. The local hostelry near the estate where he and his friends used to go for a pint or two after work or at the weekend was the Torranyard Inn (pictured below today in its current guise as a curry house). It was there he got to know an elderly, retired coal miner called William Grant, or Wull Grant, as he was known.

Torranyard Inn

Wull lived upstairs at the Torranyard Inn, in a room with no running water and no electricity, lit at night by paraffin lamps and with only an outside water closet (toilet). Dad said Wull had silken white hair and skin like a baby. But his skin was marked with blue where coal dust had been sealed into injuries picked up during his time in the mines. He wore a muffler (a woollen scarf) and an old light-checked Tweed suit and used to sit outside the back door of the pub in his bunnet (flat cap) with an old pair of binoculars. I have no doubt that this was probably what got Dad talking with him, as Dad was also a keen birdwatcher and they probably found common ground there. He was apparently one for the pithy phrase. He used to say (from no doubt bitter experience),"Hunger's guid [good] kitchen" and, on hearing a young man at the bar holding forth that '"Money isn't everything", Wull apparently replied "Aye son, but it's a handy thing to have when you go to buy a loaf"! That latter one passed into our family treasure trove of sayings, to be oft-repeated. I think I would have liked Wull!

Over time, Wull shared with Dad that he had been at the Battle of the Somme. Dad couldn't remember the exact military unit that Wull had served in but it was a Scottish regiment, of which there were several present. Not only had Wull been a soldier there but he was a sniper and spent much of his time crawling around in No-Man's Land, looking for targets on the German side. He was out there on the first day of the battle, one hundred years ago tomorrow, and the crossfire across No-Man's Land was so heavy that, while crawling around on his front, he received two bullet holes through his water bottle (which would have been on his belt or webbing, worn at the back and, so, sticking up more than the rest of his body. There were probably few who had closer shaves that day than "Auld Wull Grant", as Dad often referred to him. He served throughout the Battle of the Somme. He told Dad that, once, he spent three days playing a deadly cat-and-mouse with a German sniper before Wull killed him. Although he returned home after the War, Dad said Wull's body was full of shrapnel from shell blasts out there between the trenches.

I tell Wull's story today, not because it was exceptional. Of course it was exceptional, by the standards of our so-much safer, richer and more comfortable times. There would be countless exceptional stories of bravery, courage in the face of mind-numbing terror, of endurance in the appalling misery of the conditions in the trenches of the Somme, if only those stories had been or could be told. Rather, I tell Wull's story simply to honour the memory of an ordinary Scottish man caught up in the first dramatic waves of 20th Century history, dragged from a presumably hard and rather dangerous life as a Scottish coal miner in the Edwardian era to the battlefields of France, to the first major battle of modern, mechanised war, with tanks and aircraft for the first time, poison gas, trench warfare and who survived the battle and the war despite being a sniper, surely one of the most dangerous of all roles in that hellish trench war. Wull survived all of that, returned home to continue his life as a miner in Ayrshire and eventually retired to live above a pub in the most basic of conditions, whiling away his time sitting in the open air watching birds and chatting. Dad said that Wull passed away sometime in the 1960's, perhaps before I was born in the middle of that decade.

Now my Dad is no longer with us and, as far as I know, the only people who know Wull's story are my brother, sister, mother and me. Maybe he has descendants. I don't know. Maybe there are other old men or women still alive who remember him and his story from evenings spent at the Torranyard in the late 1950's and early 1960's. I don't know. I regret that I have no photo of Wull. I have no idea if his military service record was one of the 2 million or so destroyed by fire during the London Blitz in World War Two. But I know he was my father's friend and we know a little of his story. And now you know a little of his story too.

Thanks to his story, which he shared with Dad, I have known about the Battle of the Somme since I was a very small boy and that there was nothing glorious about it. In one reference given in the Wikipedia entry for the Battle of the Somme, a German officer, Friedrich Steinbrecher, is quoted as saying:

Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.” 

There will be a two minute silence tomorrow morning in the UK to honour those who fought at the Somme 100 years ago. Personally, I will be pausing to remember, as well as all those who fought and died on both sides, William Grant, Auld Wull, and my own Great Grandfather, two men loved and respected by my own father, and what they went through in the trenches of France and Gallipoli.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A fatbike nightride word picture

Thursday night is fatbike night. My night out on my own. The Scottish summer's late evening sunlit riding opportunities have passed for another year. To ride on a November evening is to gird yourself with onion layers of merino, lycra, Goretex. A headtorch precariously wrapped around the helmet. Mighty bright double beam lights on the handlebars, a veritable pair of arclights to cut the night ahead, and a flashing red bobtail behind. One minute to nine, daughter a-bed, dinner digested, dishes done, I roll down the gravel drive, fat tyres kicking out the stones that the neighbours and I so recently barrowed in and raked out. Pulling out onto the road and thankfully it's quiet at this hour, the tarmac ride a necessary evil to take me to the woods and trails. Four inch wide tyres thrum on the blacktop, fish out of water, not really meant for this environment, impatient for the soft, the wet, the yielding of the off-road world.

Crossing over the motorway bridge, I soar above lorries, vans, cars and even motorbikes (with smaller wheels than mine), then it's down the dip, across the first watercourse of the trip, and up the hill to Cambusbarron church. I look left at the junction, see the house where John Grierson, the father of the documentary, spent his childhood. The man who first turned real stories into reel stories, real to reel. Then it's past the pub (and incredulous voices from the smokers outside the door as they spot the size of my wheels and tyres) and then the primary school as I climb gradually towards the quarry gate, rolling by quiet cul-de-sacs, their houses with softly golden glowing windows. No one is out here except me, this winter evening world a largely indoor one.

As I approach the quarry gate, my lights pick out a constellation of reflections from stacks of stockpiled traffic cones, a shoal of silver flashes that slide left and right as my lights swing back and forth, and then past me in my journey's flow. No one's parked here. It looks like I have the place to myself. As I cross the threshold at the quarry gate, it feels like I'm escaping. But I am surrounded by aliens. Non-native, invasive Japanese knotweed dying back for winter on my right and snowberry to the left, it's crop of gleaming white berries like oyster pearls in the light cast sideways from my bike. And I know the small quarry just up on the left is infested with pernicious alien peri-peri burr, out of my sight for now.

I'm struck by how absolutely still it is tonight. Not a breath of a breeze, nor twitch of a leaf. Only the sound of my tyres on the small gravel of the path and the quiet roll of chain on gears and jockey wheels. And, behind me now, less than a mile back, the noise of many other tyres, the sound of the motorway like an constant low exhaling.

It isn't cold, not even cool but, with conditions this still, it must the light cloud cover that's preventing the temperature from plunging like an inappropriate neckline at a wake. I do see a few stars but even these slip from view for now as I enter the tunnel of trees. My headlights arc back and forth with my increased effort as the path's slope steepens, a little at first, then dramatically. I am forced down the gears, already on the small chain ring at the front but, pleasingly after months of riding nearly every day, still having a couple in reserve on the rear sprocket. This is the only serious climb of the night and I begin to leak a little sweat. I am overdressed for a steep climb but, soon enough, I reach the boulders blocking what was once a road for engined vehicles and, jinking past those obstacles, I reach the flat plateau of gravel into which the hanging valley of the upper quarry opens From here, it will be a pretty steady run down to the quarry plant and access road. As I pedal and freewheel across this dark plain, a moving cone of brightness, gravels crunching underwheel, I see the soft houselights of the hill farms gleaming off to my right, and flashes from headlights on cars negotiating the North Third road's bends, undulations and slopes.

Then... looking around with my headtorch, I see a different light, not illumination but two glowing points of my reflected torch, the eyes of something, I know not what at first but which resolves itself into a roe deer ahead of me, and which slips quickly and silently off to the scrub on the right. It's the first deer I have seen tonight but won't be the last.

The downhill run is pleasant recovery after the climb and, all too soon, after a little weaving to find the path and negotiate more bouldery roadblocks, I pass the tall and currently silent white tower of the batching plant and my wheels glide in relative smoothness onto the access road. During the day, huge trucks may trundle up and down here with dusty plumes and roaring diesel engines but, tonight, there's just me and my bike, its whirring freewheel and the road buzz from my fat tyres. Slipping past the old limekilns on the left now, steep enough downhill for me to need to brake, conscious of the large metal gate ahead, which I need to come down off the saddle to walk the bike past.

Another short steep downhill, now on the North Third road but only until I reach the bend by the river, where our ways will diverge. On the way down, I see a searchbeam of torchlight, obviously handheld from its movements, as someone from one of the farms up the hill goes about their business. Then, I reach the river and peel off left on the bend, across the wee bridge. I look down into the fast-flowing current as I cross, my headtorch a poor illuminator as the water seems to suck in the lightbeam, giving nothing back, an aquatic event horizon.

Off the bridge, I wheel into a huge black cavern of tall trees, and the only real muddy patch of the ride, then out into the open air. The farm track, one of my favourite sections of this ride, offers many possibilities. But not for tonight, the enticing delights of the North Third cliff and wood paths. Rather, my ride takes me straight on down towards the Swanswater Fishery. Before I reach the junction offering such choices, a gleam of eyes picked out ahead by my headtorch  presages the passage across my path of two more roe deer, their crossing rather panicked by my rattling, whirring cone of light. The farm track is dry tonight and the usual mix of hard-packed earth, cobbly stones and hollows, not puddle-filled tonight. It makes for a slightly weaving, slightly downhill run as I try to find the smoothest line in the view allowed by my lights. And it is a pretty smooth ride, the four inch deep tyres playing give and take with holes, rocks, bumps and buffeting from the track. As I reach the first ponds of the fishery, the sound of rushing, gurgling water reaches me with an odd doppler effect as I pass over small streams draining through the site. On summer rides through here, the pond banks are dotted with silent sentinel anglers, in their own bubbles of focus and concentration. Not tonight. The lights in the windows of the scattered houses by the fishery provide the only other signs of human life.

All too quickly, I reach another tarmac road and the occasional four wheel drive flicks by, headlamps blazing and windows dark, heading home into the hills. Again, my time on the road is brief, although here, the closeness of the motorway, less than a couple of hundred metres away provides the dominant soundtrack as I sneak along to connect to the next section of path.

Through a farmyard and past the 'big hoose', the path bends down to the Bannockburn, its presence heard and felt in the dark, rather than seen. As I descend the narrow path, the temperature falls some degrees, into a nearly frosty pocket along the burn side. Glistening dew is not far from freezing, if that sky clears a little more. I need to cross the Bannockburn to reach the next stage of the ride, Tinker's Loan, and roll cautiously across the old, narrow and frankly crumbling stone bridge, not the greatest fun in the dark. Another tunnel of trees and a steady climb up Tinker's Loan, my lights filling the narrow space of the path, hedges and tree'd ceiling. A pair of wood pigeons explode from a tree above me, battering out through the branches, their staccato machine gun wing flaps, the percussion instruments of fear.

Winding steadily up, I cross the road that runs down to Gateside and catch an eyeful of the night-time Forth Valley laid out before me. Streetlights, house lights, floodlights, car headlights, beacons flash on pylons pinprick on the retinas before I dip into the Loan again, downhill now and then a final short climb up to the other end of this narrow and surely ancient way. I can smell cows and see on the right, at path's end, solid darker blocks in the darkness, betrayed by odour. Now it really is all downhill from here as I whizz, woohooing, down the Polmaise Road towards home. My tyres fling off the detritus of the offroad world, a shower of flashes flaring in front of my lights. I reach the motorway again and streetlights and the ride feels like it is already over, so I extend the magic a little longer by cutting through the community wood, scattering rabbits from the pathside verges and rousing a late night dog walker from his quiet thoughts. As we exchange hellos, I realise he's the first person I've seen since I passed the pub and that's the first word I've spoken since leaving the house... And then, I'm home.

What's so special about riding alone and off-road at night? Maybe it wouldn't be your thing but, in reflecting a little on my solo bike trip in the dark last Thursday night, I realised that it put my state of mind in a special place. The description that sprang to mind was... Mindfulness. According to Wikipedia, "Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment" It's all about being in the moment, observing, focussing on the now. And although it was a ride of only 50 minutes or so, not long by typical training ride standards, it felt longer in a good way, a flood of simple observations, awareness of my bike, my body, the environment I was passing through, and no conversation (until I was two minutes from home), leaving me feeling refreshed and relaxed. And all that on top of the physical exercise that was my original motivation.

P.S. What's a fatbike? This is mine!

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Here comes the sun (spots and all)

Hello again world. Long time, no write!I thought it was time I reactivated my blog as there's work to do, thread posts to re-ignite and complete and a world of interest to be writing about again! Where have I been? Well, around the time I last posted, I became a parent  and life became a metaphorical timey-wimey wormhole for my free, available time. Here I am resurfacing on the other side of the wormhole (and what a ride it has been!).

And what has brought me back today? Well, the autumn evening sun tonight attracted me to fix the long lens to my digital SLR and take a few shots as the Sun sank towards the western horizon, as seen from western Stirling in Scotland, UK, thus:

Quite attractive - but wait, what are those dotty, spotty things on the sun?

Yes, looks like sunspots - I've never managed to photograph sunspots before, so I was quite excited!

Sunspots but perhaps you can't quite make them out so...

I went and checked online - there are now some great websites showing the activity on the sun in near-real time. I went to NASA's SOHO site - for their Solar and Heliotrophic Observatory - here - which showed this entry for the sun today:

Sunspot activity for today, 10th September

And with not very much squinting and little need for imagination, you can see two of the larger spots, numbers 2157 and 2158, ringed in the following copy of my photo:


Yippee - now all I need to do is find out how, safely, to take much crisper images of the Sun (and to find out how to make my photos show the colour of the Sun - the actual Sun I was looking at was a deep red - not the yellow colour it looks here). I'm afraid I am a  bit of a lazy point-and-press merchant. I fear I need to read the manual for my SLR.  Anyway, a fine end to a lovely day and one with a bit of added scientific excitement.

And what are sunspots? Read this from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Signs I Like #32: Christmas 2012 Special

My inexplicable near-six month absence from blogging notwithstanding, I emerge blinking into the dim midwinter gloom to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. This sign found yesterday in Marks and Spencer's as we hung about waiting for the turkeys to be discounted!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

A grasshopper's eye view?

Continuing the grassland theme from earlier in the week, I tried a wee photographic experiment with my phone camera, seeking a slightly different perspective on this grassland habitat. I set the auto-timer to 10 seconds, pressed the shutter release and laid the phone, lens-upward, in the middle of a bed of creeping buttercups and speedwells. I think the results are quite interesting and definitely the different perspective I was seeking!  The second of the pictures was one of my blipfotos this week.
Please let me know what you think!

Signs I Like #31: Are all committee meetings the SAME?

Breathe In And Out... on Blipfoto :: Are all committee meetings the same? :: 12 June 2012

I enjoyed spotting this sign at the University of Stirling earlier this week, considering how many committee (and other) meetings I have sat in over the last 25 years!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Signs I Like #30: Once in a lifetime

Well, it probably will be once in a lifetime that the Olympic Flame is carried through the town where I live. And that is happening here in Stirling tomorrow, Wednesday 13th June 2012. And, despite all the corporate nonsense and over-commercialisation of the London 2012 Games, I refuse to have my excitement quenched. This road sign, foretelling tomorrow's rolling traffic restrictions and heavy-handed security blanket, was in Bridge of Allan's main street, where the Olympic Torch convoy will be going before coming within two minutes drive of my house in Stirling.